Thursday, 28 October 2010

Free Ranges

The UK has one of, if not the, most impressive range of consumer magazines in the world. I’d be guessing, but it would be in the region of 4,500 different titles that are available to buy in the shops around the country.

But when I say available, I have to use the term very loosely, as things have been getting a little crowded in the newsagents shelves recently and something had to give.

In order to try and make these ramblings seem just a little sensible, I’ll need to offer some background at this point, stick with me. You see, the wholesale distribution system in the UK is also pretty “special”. Publishers carve up the country into areas of around 500-1500 retailers in size, and the wholesalers complete a tender process for each area. The prize? A vertical agreement that creates “mini monopolies” across the country, where the retailers have no say in who supplies their magazines, but where the wholesalers can provide an extremely time efficient service for the publishers.

There are distinct pros and cons to this system. One downside is that customer service to retail suffers, you only have to pick up a copy of Retail Newsagent magazine to see that things aren’t like any other industry. A plus side, however, is that all of these magazines had a level playing field when it came to distribution to retail. There was no real advantage to the magazines with higher circulation and titles that sold just a few thousand copies were able to piggy back.

However, over the last decade or more, supermarkets and large chain retailers have started to charge quite hefty fees to display magazines on their shelves, and publishers have started to take more of an interest in the number of copies each single retailer is sent. Without boring your socks off, this combination has meant that larger magazine retailers have taken the lion’s share of popular magazines and smaller newsagents have had everything else literally thrown at them, often without them wanting, needing or requesting it all.

Back to the point I was trying to make in the first place – Tesco et al only have the magazines you already know about and although the village newsagent often has all the more interesting stuff, you’ve no way of finding it as his shelves are just too crowded with all the magazines that cannot afford to get into the big boys’ shops. Added to this, the management of his stock is so difficult, that the virtually tireless newsagent gives up magazines or closes, creating even fewer shops for the 4,000 magazines to prize their way into. If he does stick with it, the actual customer (let’s not forget him) can’t find what he is looking for, and more importantly cannot possibly discover anything new to catch his interest as he can but see the spines of the magazines and no more.

Not good at all. In fact, current magazine sales overall are generally propped up by those publishers who can afford the TV advertising and/or a prominence in major retailers. Cue increasing gap between heavyweights (mainstream) and tiddlers (interesting niche mags). Niche publishers are hurling themselves at digital solutions and the print magazine market is suffering even more. We’re worried about how long this can last.

Brace yourselves for the TV listings analogy:

We all know there is a lot more, great quality programming available to us these days, yet you will consistently hear that “there is nothing good on the box anymore”. One theory goes that as programmes die out, viewers cannot find a replacement as there is just too much out there and the only good “introductory” systems are the trailers and ads on the telly that hook you into the next big thing. The other million and one programmes, as good as they may be, are surplus, unexplored and as a result “not worth watching”. Thus the viewer’s universe shrinks and shrinks and eventually he resorts to reruns of Bergerac, and Yes, Minister.

Back to the magazines and we’re trying hard to resurface the playing field at Newsstand. All magazines get the same airtime, we are adding more and more impartial information on magazines than ever before and we run, screaming from the notion that the best sellers list must contain all the quality.

As we add better browsing options to the site, we hope you’ll see more and more magazines that deserve to get discovered and that keep publishing as a result. The alternatives are grim for all magazine lovers; like the TV reruns, we really wouldn’t want to be selling dog eared back issues and not a lot else.

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